Fitspo: The New Health ‘Inspiration’ Is Just Thinspo In Sheep’s Clothing

“Thinspo” content—images and articles “inspiring” readers to persist at disordered eating and dieting for the sake of being thin— has slowly been getting pushed off social media sites and shamed for its damaging effect on women’s body image and mental health. In its wake, a new brand of body-negative, obsession-spurring “inspiration”—called “fitspo”—has begun cropping up on Facebook, Pinterest, and Tumblr. But with the goals of achieving fitness and health, instead of thinness, it’s unclear when fitspo is a great way to stay motivated, or when it’s just thinspo in sheep’s clothing.

Thinspo content is disturbing in its own right, but fitspo content can be even more bothersome, because on first look, it actually seems inspiring and healthy. Do lots of lunges? Why, yes! Work hard at fitness and health? Replacing the goal of weight loss with goals of strength and health (a la “strong is the new skinny” and “healthy is the new skinny”) is a move in the right direction; in fact, it’s something we hope all of our readers do. The problem is when you start visualizing these goals…with yet more idealized (and often photoshopped) pictures of women in sports bras and short-shorts.

Even if they are exercising, holding weights, and eating big green salads, photos of “fit” women still fuel an unhealthy obsession with appearance, defeating the purpose of prioritizing health and strength, and perpetuating new myths about how women “should” look if they’re healthy and fit.

Of course, we’re happy to see images of women with muscles getting some representation in the media. But as Chichi Kix, the trainer and writer behind Fit Villains, wrote on Facebook earlier this week:

Don’t get me wrong: I love, LOVE seeing fit girls more and more often. I appreciate muscle. And it IS slightly more refreshing than images of thinner & thinner models. But considering that the majority of fitspo models still represent an unrealistic & unattainable ideal for most women, I don’t think it’s necessary to pair motivational messages with images of ripped, toned, albeit gorgeous ladies.

Seeing lean, toned women represented in the media isn’t the problem; idealizing a single body type is. We’ve made this argument on Blisstree before, and so have plenty of others. Idealizing Marilyn Monroe over Keira Knightley might seem like a great way to rebel against modern media’s ultra-thin norms, but placing any single body type on a pedestal inevitably sets unrealistic expectations for most women.

Here are a few of the deceiving images. On first glance, they may seem like great motivation for your health goals; here’s why we think it’s better to steer clear of their hidden body negativity:

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    • Sadie Chanlett-Avery

      Thank you for this post! Facebook overflows with myopic images of “fitness.” I fear that they fuel punishing workouts and body dysmorphia. Let’s overcome this idea of the body as an achievement and return to the joy of movement.

    • Michelle

      Just because something is in an advertisment does not mean you must look like that. American people are like sheeps, we have the ads in europe butnobody strives to look like them because they are just meant to sell stuff. You are all very stupid.

      • Jess

        Gosh, yes, every single country in Europe is so much smarter and better than America in every single way. The effect is so strong, too! I mean, when I was growing up in America, I was such a dumb sheep, just taking in everything that advertisers said to me. But then I moved abroad and found that I was instantly able to discount subliminal messages in advertising. It must be something in the air!

        Or, you know, that you’re just not very bright and have little to no understanding of how advertising works and have bought into media-driven cultural distinctions.

        It’s definitely one of those, though.

    • Rebecca

      Thank you for this post as I think you help readers make an important distinction about the information they consume. It can be such a slippery slop and tough distinction between inspiration vs. triggering, shaming and promoting unsafe thoughts and practices.

    • Wren

      I especially don’t like the Gwyneth Paltrow quote. It seems like she’s promoting punishing workouts which ,in some cases when people take it too far, can do just as much harm as good.

    • JA

      “Seeing lean, toned women represented in the media isn’t the problem; idealizing a single body type is. ” yes.

      i loathe fitspo stuff. i’m a formerly-athletic disabled person, and the body-shaming messages of such images/advertising hits me hard.

    • Emily

      I think fitspo can be even worse than thinspo, because if you look at thinspo, part of your mind is thinking that it is unhealthy and unrealistic to think you’ll look like that. But with fitspo, it’s like oh yeah, I could look like that and I’d be so healthy too! No matter what your weight is, you’ll still look like you and not a photoshopped model.

    • Hannah

      Why was my comment deleted?

    • Rana

      I just want to say, I’ve enjoyed every single article you’ve written about body image. It’s nice to see an even-handed, realistic view of these issues that isn’t clouded by supposed ‘empowering’ ideas and images. Thank you!

    • Kendra

      At least the fitspo seems to promote a variety of body types. You can be curvy, tall, short, skinny and be in good shape. Looking at images of girls with flat stomachs pushes me to work out more myself. I would by no means say I have dysmorphia, but I know my belly fat isn’t healthy. I dont starve myself (I actually eat quite a bit…and keep it in my belly) nor diet excessively, but I do set more time aside to do pilates, jog, or walk. I try to slowly incorporate more healthy eating choices. I guess some people have more extreme personalities, but I try to take it to a positive place. While I haven’t seen extreme improvements, I have seem some toning and I feel stronger and better. People can misconstrue anything to be bad, negative, evil, or unappealing. This is better than thinspo anyday.

    • Gena

      As usual, Briana, this is an important and brave post. I tackled “thinspo” on my blog in May, and the comments were really heartening: a few people came out in defense, but most of my readers admitted with relief that their desires to look like the Tone it Up girls or Zuzana were and are no different from many womens’ desire to look like Kate Moss over a decade ago. In both cases, an “ideal” shape is being presented for consumption. I think it’s high time we all started blasting through these presentations of an ideal shape, period, and start simply directing self love to our bodies.

    • pers0n

      I agree that fitspo is “thinspo in sheep’s clothing.”

      But why, WHY would you post a slideshow? Would you post a slideshow of thinspo pictures? I think not.

      Thanks. I was going to have a snack but now I’m not so sure. And I’m not just saying that! As a woman in recovery from an eating disorder, I have *finally* been able to start working out again. I chose yoga, because of the mental benefits it offers and the de-emphasis on appearance/ego, plus I was never addicted to it before, so there you go.

      But now that I start to see myself as “fit,” I’m hitting a wall with all this “fitspo” crap and OF COURSE I looked through your stupid pictures, because that’s what eating disorders do to people. If there are images of women to compare to, I will compare – at least when you explicitly tell me that that’s what the images are for!

      Take these down from this page! Create a link and warn of triggering content.

    • BottleBlondeGal

      This article is extremely biased and one sided. The author makes it sound like that all women who so much as look at fitspo or thinspo are fragile flowers who could be pushed over the edge and develop and eating disorder.